Don’t get blogged down
Workplace blogging by tech-savvy employees can leave employers open to legal action unless they have strict procedures in place
WITH some sources claiming 80,000 new weblogs – or simply “blogs” – are being created each day, it seems everybody has something to say to the world and the technological means to say it.
The blog is generally accepted to have come of age in the early days of the Iraq war when the online postings from citizens of Baghdad trumped the “embedded” war correspondents of the world’s press when it came to telling us what was really going on.
However, for those looking to share their musings on the workplace, a well-read blog can put the writer on a collision-course with an employer.
Blogging f irst hit the employment law headlines back in 2004, when US flight attendant Ellen Simonetti was suspended and subsequently dismissed over her blog – a semifictional account of life in the sky with Anonymous Airlines, which flew out of Quirksville. However, she landed in hot water after including pictures of herself in the uniform of her real-life employer, Delta Airlines.
Last year, closer to home, an employee of Waterstone’s was sacked because of the contents of his satirical blog, the Woolamaloo Gazette. Joe Gordon’s entries would occasionally mention his work, referring to his employer as “Bastardstone’s” and calling his manager “Evil Boss”.
Some might argue that calling a colleague a “numpty” or similar in a blog entry is no different to making the same criticism in the pub on a Friday night after work. However, this is not a valid comparison. One is permanent in nature and reaches a global audience, while the other is temporary and to a select few.
In challenging the fairness of their
dismissals, both Simonetti and Gordon argued their employers had no policy in place to deal with blogging activities. This raises two important questions: whether blogging is permitted during working hours, and whether the employer can do anything about the actual content of a blog.
The former should be dealt with in an “acceptable use” policy, along with personal use of the Internet and emails more generally. Despite the fact that misuse of resources is three times more likely in those organisations with no such policy, it is estimated four in ten organisations are still without.
Attempting to control the content of blogs will be far more controversial, particularly for public sector employers, which may be more easily targeted with human rights arguments. However, employers will, as a matter of course, provide for disciplinary sanctions where there has been a failure – whether on or off duty – to meet the organisation’s standards of conduct. Alongside examples such as violent conduct or substance abuse, you will increasingly find “bringing the company into disrepute” being deployed to cover blogging.
Employers must avoid fueling any flames and ensure their reaction to blog content is proportionate to the actual damage caused by the employee’s conduct. If the comments made are general and unlikely to be traced back to a particular employer by the public, significant external harm seems doubtful. However, if the company is referred to – or otherwise identified – or if specific individuals are named and criticised, the situation may justify disciplinary action.
As technology advances, so must employment policies and practices. Companies which already have policy provision for blogging may also wish to look at the growing use of podcasts – essentially blogging in audio format – and update their policies accordingly. While the number of regular podcasters in the UK is estimated in the thousands at present, the exponential growth of blogging perhaps points the way to future developments in this area.
So, to blog or not to blog. That is the question for the 94% of UK workers who claim to be unaware of their employers’ policy on the issue. Just as there has been a rash of tribunal claims about accessing pornography in the workplace, or excessive use of emails, it seems only a matter of time before blogging produces the same result.
Always remember that forewarned is forearmed. In this case, communicating a policy on what is or is not permitted conduct will stand you in better stead should you need to defend your actions in an employment tribunal.
Content supplied by Jane Fraser, head of employment pensions and benefits at Maclay Murray & Spens.